Prostitution in berlin: a candid look at the streetwalking trade

The Catholic Association for Women’s Social Work gives a tour of Kurfurstenstrabe in Tiergarten and provides insights into the topic of sex work.

Police operation in Kurfurstenstrabe Photo: dpa

How is it possible to tell which of the women on the street are engaged in self-determined sex work and which are involved in forced prostitution? "Not at all," explained social worker Barbara Ehret on Saturday during a "Kieztour mit Herz" through the Kurfurstenkiez in Tiergarten.

Ehret works at IN VIA, a Catholic association for women’s social work in the Berlin archdiocese. Among other things, the association is responsible for outreach social work or a counseling center for sex workers in Berlin, Brandenburg and the cross-border area. "We are responsible up to 15 kilometers into Poland, because it is German johns who go there," Ehret knows.

The "Kieztouren mit Herz" (Neighborhood Tours with a Heart) have been organized by church organizations since 2016 and, under the title "Ich zeige dir mein Berlin" (I’ll show you my Berlin), are intended to provide insights into marginalized living environments in the city. About 30, mostly older people came to learn about the lives of sex workers. Previous tours had focused on homelessness and life in prison.

A Zehlendorf Catholic expresses disappointment that the sex worker who was to report on her life canceled at short notice. "In prison you could talk to a former prisoner. Here there’s nothing to see," she says and moves away in the direction of the subway.

She could have seen a young woman waiting with an energy drink in the midday sun, eyeing the Kieztour group skeptically. And the woman in her mid-fifties in a costume and with a searching look. She could also have noticed the new buildings on Genthiner Strasse, which threaten to displace the strip. "How long will this last here?" asks Barbara Ehret, "And where will the sex workers go then?"

The tenor in the conversations during the tour: the church must address the issue of prostitution without prejudice.

Later, in the rooms of IN VIA, the discussion becomes heated. A journalist leaves her reporting role and insists on the need not only to make clients illegal, as has happened in Sweden, but to ban prostitution as such. This, she argues, is never truly self-determined and is the result of a misogynistic system.

Ehret and her colleague Margarete Muresan, however, refuse to accept such a blanket solution based on practical experience. "Behind the demand for prohibition there are often moral reservations. But moral posturing doesn’t help when you’re hungry," Ehret says. Prohibitions made prostitution less visible, but did not prevent it.

The social workers report that voluntariness often cannot be decided from the outside, since very young women in particular are conditioned to "quick money" and to saying yes. In cases where women entered forced prostitution through "loverboys," there is often an additional emotional attachment to the pimp.

Muresan explains, "You can’t make sweeping generalizations. We have to deal with women who will do something for a dime, but also with some who won’t touch a man for less than 500 euros."

On the one hand, IN VIA offers medical care, Muresan and Ehret report. On the other hand, it is important to inform the sex workers about their rights, especially about the Prostitution Protection Act, which has been in force since 2016. Support would also be offered in various languages for insurance questions, the search for housing and emotional issues. But even when the opportunity to exit presents itself, the question remains for social workers: "Does this woman want this, or is it just us who want this?"

Fundamentally, Ehret said, work needs to be done to reduce economic discrepancies – in Europe, but also globally. Through these, migrant women in particular quickly become dependent on prostitution.

And how does IN VIA now recognize cases of forced prostitution? "We depend on good police investigations," says Barbara Ehret. But the number of unreported cases is still high, and she does not trust the official figures.

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